LA PLATA — LA PLATA -- As wetlands go, Piney Branch Bog is a gem.
The soggy, heathlike landscape hugging the creek as it meanders through Charles County harbors nine kinds of plants rarely seen in Maryland, including the carnivorous purple pitcher plant.
"This site is so significant, it's a natural work of art," said Philip M. Sheridan, his feet squishing as he walks on a green carpet of moss.
In 1989, the biologist from Woodford, Va., found this 4-acre wet spot, along with a species of grass, the New Jersey rush, that scientists thought had long since vanished from Maryland.
Now this fragile ecosystem at the headwaters of Zekiah Swamp stands in the path of progress.
An excavating firm has begun clearing the land on one side of the bog for its offices and parking lot, and homes are planned on the other side as part of the sprawling St. Charles planned community.
Such development has doomed many of the mid-Atlantic region's dwindling coastal bogs, because they cannot survive tampering with the steady seep of water that sustains them.
But Sheridan and another bog-loving naturalist from Crownsville have launched a last-ditch effort to save this one, with Sheridan vowing to mortgage his home if necessary to raise the money to buy it.
"I'll do whatever it takes," says Sheridan, a childhood fan of pitcher plants who runs a laboratory devoted to preserving and restoring bogs. "I've spent my life doing this, and to let it go would be irresponsible. We don't throw Mona Lisas or Picassos away."
Though their mucky beauty may be subject to debate, bogs are a rarity in Maryland. They are open, acidic, nutrient-starved wetlands where only a few plant species can survive, such as cranberries, sundews (a flower) and sphagnum moss. Like other wetlands, they act as natural sponges, soaking up nutrients that would otherwise foul ponds, streams and the Chesapeake Bay.
Bogs are more common farther north, where they were carved out by ice age glaciers. Naturalists think Maryland's smaller examples were formed when fires removed trees and other vegetation from coastal swamps during droughts.
Never numerous, many of the state's bogs have been lost since European settlement, as settlers drained or filled wetlands for farms and homes. People also have suppressed the forest fires that might have helped maintain or create the open areas needed for bogs.
This wet patch, ironically enough, may owe its existence until now to Potomac Electric Power Co., according to Sheridan. The utility has kept trees from growing along a transmission line right of way that crosses Piney Branch. Had trees been allowed to grow there, they would have shaded the sunlight-dependant plants in the bog.
Sheridan said he found Piney Branch Bog while searching Southern Maryland for pitcher plants. The exotic-looking plants feed on unwary insects, which they trap, drown and digest in water-filled leaves.
Piney Branch Bog is one of only two spots on the Western Shore of the bay where pitcher plants grow, Sheridan said. And it is the only bog in the state underlain by a thick layer of natural gravel deposit, he noted.
The Virginia biologist notified Maryland natural resources officials 1990 of the gravel bog and of the rare plants he found there. He has tried without success since then to get the site officially protected.
The land on either side of the bog was owned by Interstate General Co., the developer of St. Charles, a Columbia-style planned community. Late last year, IGC sold 7 acres bordering the bog to Jimmy Richards and Sons Excavating, a Waldorf contracting firm looking to relocate its operation. The new owner got Charles County's zoning approval in December and began clearing the site a few weeks ago.
Sheridan said he only learned about the sale when a colleague, Keith Underwood, visited the site this month and saw the bare landscape bordering the bog.
"From the road, I could see trees were missing," Underwood said, "and my heart sank."
IGC spokesman Gregory A. Ten-Eyck said Sheridan and his colleagues knew of the company's long-standing plans to develop the land around the bog. They also knew of plans to sell the site to the excavating contractor.
"It should not have been a surprise," TenEyck said.
Others, however, say they did not know of the site's natural significance.
"I certainly wasn't aware there was a bog there," said Steve Magoon, Charles County's planning director. The master plan for the St. Charles community was approved in the 1970s, he pointed out, long before Sheridan brought the bog to the attention of state officials.
"If it were known about then, maybe we could have done something about it to protect it more effectively," Magoon said.
Said Jimmy Richards 3rd, vice president of the excavating firm: "All I wanted was a little piece of property to put our business on. I didn't realize I was going to get into all of this."
Richards said he was aware that the 7-acre tract he bought from IGC contained wetlands, and he said he had heard "rumblings" about unusual plants growing in the bog along the stream on his property. He said no one had alerted him to the presence of the pitcher plants until after he started clearing the land.
"I didn't even know such a plant existed in Maryland," Richards said.
He has had occasion to take a close look at them in recent weeks, though, because the state Department of the Environment ordered him to stop work on the site. Underwood said he complained to the state regulatory agency that protected nontidal wetlands had been cleared without permission.
Richards also acknowledged that he had "jumped the gun" by beginning to clear the site before getting a county grading permit.
Now, Sheridan and Underwood said they are negotiating with Richards to acquire his land. They fear that storm-water runoff from the excavating firm could flood the bog, wiping out the rare plant communities.
"When you have a wetland this valuable and this sensitive, I don't want to take a chance of having development nearby that could impact it," Sheridan said.
Richards said he would be willing to swap the 7-acre site for a 10-acre tract nearby, also owned by IGC, which could cost up to $500,000.
The biologists are trying to persuade the state and private conservation groups to put up the money. Underwood and Sheridan said to truly protect the bog and its source of water, 34 acres need to be preserved, including land owned by IGC.
"If we can purchase the land, we can pull this out of the fire," said Underwood, who recently helped create a bog along the Severn River in Annapolis. "It is salvageable at this point."
Janet McKegg, who oversees rare habitat acquisition for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the bog sounds like "a remnant of a high-quality natural site." But while state officials are interested in it, she warned that "it's going to be real complicated" to protect it now. She only has about $1 million a year to spend on buying endangered habitat for the entire state, she noted.
Also, given IGC's plan to develop a residential subdivision near the bog, she said, "there's some question about the long-term viability of the site."
There isn't much time to act, either. Richards said he would only be willing to wait a couple of weeks or a month at most before he would want to resume construction.
Sheridan acknowledged the odds against him, but he said an irreplaceable element of Maryland's natural history is at stake. The only other pitcher plant bog known on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay is in Anne Arundel County, he said, and it is being crowded by expansion of ball fields at Arden Park on the Severn Run.
"This site [in Charles County] is so significant, it's got to be preserved, no matter what," Sheridan said. "Everybody agrees it's a valuable wetland. It's got stuff that isn't duplicated elsewhere."
Pub Date: 3/31/97